5 Sneaky Downsides of Minimalism (I See No One Talking About)

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5 Sneaky Downsides of Minimalism (I See No One Talking About)

There’s a reason why minimalism has garnered such a massive following over the past few years: It’s a remarkable idea.

The core concept is simple, accessible, sustainable, financially attractive, and even therapeutic for most people. Minimalism encourages you to focus on what matters most while eliminating all the junk. It’s exactly what we need in our distracted, consumer-driven world.

But is that the whole story?

With such a brilliant philosophy, it’s easy to forget that there are also considerable downsides of minimalism — and that it’s not for everyone. It’s just like anything else in life: There are benefits, and there are drawbacks. Depending on your situation, one may outweigh the other.

The problem with minimalism is that most people only look at the benefits and toss the pitfalls in the river. This gives people who are new to minimalism a strictly one-dimensional perspective.

So here’s something you won’t hear from your average minimalist pal: An honest look at five downsides of minimalism. If you’re a minimalist or planning to become one, keep these in mind.

1. Simplicity Can Backfire

Less isn’t always more. It’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way when I crammed my most valuable possessions inside a backpack and moved to Portugal. For seven months, I must’ve lived with less than 100 items (not that I ever counted).

And that was an incredibly freeing feeling, no doubt. But at the same time, two things started happening that I didn’t see coming.

First, I got way more attached to the few things I owned.

So whenever I lost something, broke an item, or simply wore off a piece of clothing, I low-key panicked. I became insecure about whether I could get a proper replacement. Or — even worse — I would shy away from getting a replacement because I was so focused on living with less.

Second, when I did buy something new, I would cling to it as if it was my lifebelt.

Example: Shortly after moving to Portugal, I bought a second-hand bike. So, of course, I also needed a helmet. But then, when it was time to go back home, I held on to these things.

In an act of desperation, I managed to sell the bike for a fraction of the price I paid. But the helmet? I kept it. I stuffed it into my backpack even though I knew I had another helmet back home.

Again, it was a refreshing experience to live out of a backpack. But sometimes, that actually made life harder, more complicated.

My point here is that every positive change you make toward a simpler life carries a sneaky negative side-effect. Your chief task is to decide whether the positives outweigh the negatives in your specific circumstances.

2. The Obsess with Less

Creating a simpler life can be extremely fulfilling. Not just the result but also the process. There’s something cathartic about cleaning out drawers full of junk, ridding of tech you haven’t used in years, and accustoming to using only a handful of items every day.

It’s as if you’re becoming a new person. A phoenix being reborn in the ashes of your old clutter.

There’s just one problem: When you’re done with this process you can feel as though you’re lacking something. I’m not talking about missing stuff here. I’m talking about missing a hobby. A habit.

When there’s nothing more to declutter, and you’ve simplified your life, it’s like, What’s next?

There are three toxic mechanisms in particular:

  1. Starvation — You’re hungry to buy things that would actually help you flourish. But your imaginary minimalist’s rulebook is holding you back from taking action. For instance, I’d really love to have a few more clothes because I know a certain style makes me more confident. And yet, I keep wearing my same old t-shirts from high school.
  2. Playing number games — Among minimalists, it can be extremely en vogue to count the things you own. And that’s just one of many metrics people use to define themselves as minimalists. The problem with these number games is that there’ll always be someone who owns less stuff than you. This creates a pathological drive to be the best in an absurd category.
  3. Compulsive spartanism — This is when the slightest sign of clutter in your life makes you uneasy. You stop questioning what you really need and get rid of everything that doesn’t comply with your minimalist ideal. I recently gave away a set of brushes only to find out a few weeks later that I actually love painting. So there I was, going back to the store, buying new brushes.

The shared root cause of these problems is that you lose sight of the big picture. You forget why you started minimalism in the first place.

For me, the biggest reason to embrace minimalism was to live a more intentional life. To know exactly what matters most to me and, therefore, to simplify everything I do.

But when minimalism becomes complex and difficult, it completely misses the mark. It shouldn’t feel like a struggle; it should feel effortless. And so, whenever I lose myself in the jungle of minimalism, I simply ask myself:

Why?

Why do you want to declutter in the first place? How high are the chances you’ll still need this in the future? Why do you want to let go of sentimental items? Because someone told you to or because you genuinely want to?

When I can’t answer these questions honestly, I know I’m doing something wrong.

3. Aesthetics Without Ethics

Minimalism is not just a lifestyle, it’s an aesthetic. Just look at the heap of YouTubers who show off their minimalist apartment. Or search Instagram for relevant tags and hashtags. You’ll get flooded with a very certain style we’ve come to connect ever-so-strongly with minimalism.

The problem with aesthetics? They’re easily replicable without thinking about the philosophy behind them.

I know too well that if I decluttered my furniture and wardrobe to the bare bones, it would make me miserable. Why? Because it’d be a desperate attempt to look like a die-hard minimalist. But internally, I’m simply not at that point yet. It’s crucial that the internal shift happens before the external one.

What’s worse, when you only focus on the aesthetic, you might force it onto others. Which is, of course, not very minimalist. Only preaching the external effects keeps you from doing the internal work.

In other words: If you want the aesthetics, you should know the ethics.

4. Loss of Self-Expression

If you live in a country that’s shaped by Western culture, try this experiment. Go out on the street on a busy day and observe what people are wearing. Here’s what I saw today:

  • Neutral, muted colors.
  • Affordable, convenient style.
  • Very little jewelry and decorations.

If an alien came to earth and was given the task of judging the Western style of clothing, they’d probably say: “Well… everyone kind of looks the same!”

The minimalist style has quietly taken over the fashion industry.

And yes, it’s not a bad thing that everyone can blend into a big crowd with clothes they can afford. But at the same time, we lose a ton of cultural and individual expression.

It’s fascinating when you look at the style of Eastern or African cultures in comparison. There we find bright colors, decorations, and laboriously crafted ornaments.

Sure, you can still express a sense of style with a minimalistic wardrobe. But it’s a lot harder and limiting in many ways. So, if fashion and representing your (cultural) identity are important to you, take this part of minimalism with a grain of salt. Dare to challenge it.

5. It’s Not the Magic Bullet

This was by far the harshest truth I had to learn. Many bloggers, YouTubers, and other content creators make it sound like minimalism is the ultimate magic bullet. The solution to all of your problems. And so, when looking up the benefits of minimalism, you’ll find an inexhaustible list about greater health, wealth, and happiness.

The problem is, of course, that you will still have problems as a minimalist. No amount of decluttering or simplifying life will stop you from experiencing the full range of human emotions.

A minimalist life is still a life. It involves the full share of suffering, loneliness, disappointment, and coping with mortality.

I wish minimalism were the magic bullet. I really do. But it’s not. Because as tragic as this may sound: there is no magic bullet to end human suffering.

If minimalism can make your life a just little bit better, more power to you. But don’t expect it to be a universal painkiller.

How to Get the Most Out of Minimalism

I didn’t write this to bash minimalism. Quite the opposite: I want to encourage it. Had I known about these downsides before getting into minimalism, it would’ve made my journey… simpler.

And that’s what minimalism is all about, isn’t it?

Thus, my recommendation for approaching minimalism is this: Get to know the whole philosophy, not just the benefits. Experiment with what works for you and what doesn’t. Keep the elements in your life that make you a better person. Finally, track if the changes you made are serving you well.

That’s how you get the most out of minimalism — and any other philosophy in life.